A Weekly Column
By Joseph Walker
BUILDING BRIDGES OF UNDERSTANDING AND TRUST
I can still see the red tail lights fading into darkness as the little red Toyota rolled down the street. I stood there for a long moment, tears welling in my eyes and rolling down my cheeks as the tail lights disappeared from my view, fully aware that my family had just changed.
Andrea, the youngest of our three oldest children, has left home, college-bound. She only lives 15 miles away, and we'll probably see her several times a week, like whenever she runs out of clothes to wear and needs to do some laundry. Or whenever she gets sick of eating cold cereal and spaghetti. Or whenever the Toyota needs an oil change (please, God, help her remember to come over when the Toyota needs an oil change-I would rather she not burn out ANOTHER engine).
Still, Andrea's transition from high school to college marks the end of an era in our family. Everything is different. There are no teenagers in the house. We no longer crowd around the kitchen table. Anita and I are no longer outnumbered by children. It's 11-year-old Elizabeth, 8-year-old Jon, Anita and I. And it will be that way from now on-or at least for the next seven years or so.
In a way, it's sort of like starting over with this "second family" of ours. Elizabeth and Jon are still young enough to believe that Mom and Dad actually know something-Elizabeth is just beginning to teasingly question us once in a while. And they still seem to like being with us. Those delightfully frightening teenage years loom far enough out on the horizon that we still have time to build bridges of understanding and trust between us and them that will help us span whatever communication gaps crop up during the next decade or so.
And make no mistake about it: communication gaps will crop up. OK - maybe if you have perfect parents raising perfect kids you can make it through the teen years gap-less. But I wouldn't know about that. The three now-adult children in our "first family" didn't have perfect parents - a practically perfect mother, perhaps, but her influence was offset by . . . well, me. And Amy, Joe and Andrea are great people, and were terrific kids. I wouldn't trade any of them for anything.
But perfect? Uh . . . no.
Because of our collective imperfections, we've had plenty of training in building bridges between the generations in our home. You begin by preparing the ground with love. You can get away with a lot of parental mistakes if your teenagers know-really know-that you love them.
Then you build a solid foundation of shared values. Of course, you can't force values on your kids. Eventually, they're going to decide if they will embrace the values you teach them. But they need a starting point, a frame of reference upon which to base values-oriented decisions.
Upon this foundation you can erect columns of communication, which must be fortified against seismic activity when - not if - it occurs. That means your communication processes have to be flexible enough to give a little during times of stress, and yet be sturdy enough to support the bridge surface itself - no small task, since it is heavily paved with service, kindness, compassion, and lots of tolerance for weird hairstyles, funky clothes and flaky friends. And even then, sometimes things get a little . . . you know . . . shaky.
But we're ready for that. We know it's coming for our "second family" -just like we know it will eventually end, with red tail lights rolling down our street.
And tears rolling down my cheeks.
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--- © Joseph Walker
Look for Joe's book,"How Can You Mend a Broken Spleen? Home Remedies for an Ailing World." It is available on-line through www.Amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.